Another case in a refugee camp on the Polish border of Medyka raised suspicion when a man only offered help to women and children. When questioned by the police, he changed his story.
As millions of women and children cross Ukraine’s borders in the face of Russian aggression, concerns grow over how to protect the most vulnerable refugees from human traffickers or victims of other forms of exploitation.
“Obviously all the refugees are women and children,” said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, UNHCR’s global communications officer, who visited the borders of Romania, Poland and Moldova.
“You have to be concerned about the potential risks of trafficking – but also sexual exploitation, exploitation and abuse. These are the kinds of situations that people like traffickers…looking to take advantage of,” he said. she declared.
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The UN refugee agency says more than 2.5 million people, including more than a million children, have already fled war-torn Ukraine in what has become an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. in Europe and its fastest exodus since the Second World War.
Across Europe, including in the border countries of Romania, Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia, citizens and volunteers greeted and offered help to those whose lives had been shattered by the war. Whether it’s free shelter, free transport, work opportunities or other forms of assistance, help is not far away.
But neither are the risks.
Police in Wrocaw, Poland, said on Thursday they arrested a 49-year-old suspect charged with rape after he allegedly assaulted a 19-year-old Ukrainian refugee he lured with offers for help online. The suspect could face up to 12 years in prison for the “brutal crime”, authorities said.
“He met the girl by offering his help through an internet portal,” police said in a statement. “She escaped from war-torn Ukraine, spoke no Polish. She trusted a man who promised to help and shelter her. Unfortunately, it all turned out to be manipulation misleading.”
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Berlin police warned women and children in a social media post in Ukrainian and Russian against accepting offers of overnight stays and urged them to report anything suspicious.
Tamara Barnett, director of operations at the Human Trafficking Foundation, a UK-based charity spun off from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, said such rapid and massive movement of people could be a “recipe for a desaster”.
“When you suddenly have a huge cohort of really vulnerable people who need money and assistance immediately,” she said, “that’s kind of fertile ground for situations of exploitation and abuse. sexual exploitation. When I saw all these volunteers offering their homes…that signaled a worry in my head.”
The Migration Data Portal notes that humanitarian crises such as those associated with conflict “can exacerbate pre-existing patterns of trafficking and give rise to new ones” and that traffickers can thrive on “the inability of families and communities to protect themselves and their children”.
Security officials in Romania and Poland told The Associated Press that plainclothes intelligence agents were looking for criminal elements. In the Romanian border town of Siret, authorities said men offering free rides to women had been turned away.
Human trafficking is a serious violation of human rights and can involve a wide range of exploitative roles. From sexual exploitation – such as prostitution – to forced labor, from domestic slavery to organ harvesting and forced criminality, it is often inflicted by traffickers through coercion and abuse of power.
A 2020 report on human trafficking from the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, estimates that the annual global profit from the crime is 29.4 billion euros ($32 billion). It says sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking in the 27-nation bloc and that nearly three-quarters of all victims are women, with nearly one in four victims a child.
Madalina Mocan, committee director of ProTECT, an organization that brings together 21 anti-trafficking groups, said there were “already worrying signs” with some refugees being offered shelter in exchange for services such as cleaning and childcare, which could lead to exploitation.
“There will be attempts by traffickers trying to smuggle victims from Ukraine across the border. Women and children are vulnerable, especially those without connections – family, friends, other support networks,” he said. she said, adding that continued conflict would mean “more and more vulnerable people” are arriving at the borders.
At the train station in the Hungarian border town of Zahony, 25-year-old Dayrina Kneziva arrived from Kiev with her childhood friend. Fleeing a war zone, Kneziva said, left them little time to consider other potential dangers.
“When you compare… you just choose what will be less dangerous,” said Kneziva, who hopes to travel to Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, with her friend. “When you leave in a hurry, you think of nothing else.”
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A large proportion of refugees arriving in border countries want to join friends or family elsewhere in Europe and many rely on foreigners to reach their destination.
“People leaving Ukraine suffer from emotional stress, trauma, fear, confusion,” said Cristina Minculescu, a psychologist at Next Steps Romania who provides support to victims of trafficking. “It’s not just human trafficking, there is a risk of kidnapping, rape… their vulnerabilities being exploited in different forms.”
At the Romanian border of Siret, after a five-day road trip from the bombed-out historic town of Chernihiv, Iryna Pypypenko, 44, waited in a tent with her two children, sheltering from the cold. She said a friend in Berlin who was looking for accommodation for her warned her to be wary of potentially harmful offers.
“She told me that there were many very dangerous proposals,” said Pypypenko, whose husband and parents remained in Ukraine. “She told me that I should only communicate with official people and only believe the information they give me.”
Ionut Epureanu, the chief commissioner of police in Suceava County, told the AP at the Siret border that police were working closely with the country’s national agency against human trafficking and other law enforcement in an attempt to prevent crime.
“We try to do a check for every vehicle leaving the area,” he said. “A hundred people who do transportation have good intentions, but you just have to be one who isn’t…and tragedy can happen.”
Vlad Gheorghe, a Romanian member of the European Parliament who started a Facebook group called United for Ukraine that has more than 250,000 members and pools resources to help refugees, including accommodation, says he is working in close collaboration with the authorities to prevent any abuse.
“No offers to volunteer or stay or anything are unchecked, we check every offer,” he said. “We call back, we ask a few questions, we do a minimum check before an offer of help is accepted.”
At the Polish border of Medyka, seven former members of the French Foreign Legion, an elite military force, voluntarily provide their own security for refugees and are on the lookout for traffickers.
“This morning we found three men trying to get a group of women into a van,” said one of the former legionnaires, a South African who only gave his first name, Mornay. “I can’t say 100% that they were trying to recruit them for sex trafficking, but when we started talking to them and approaching them, they got nervous and left immediately.”
“We just want to try to keep women and children safe,” he added. “The risk is very high because there are so many people that you just don’t know who is doing what.”
Back in her tent on the Siret border, Pypypenko said people were offering help – but she didn’t know who she could trust.
“People come in and tell us they can take us to France for free,” she said. “Today we have been here for three hours … and we had two or three proposals like this. I could not even imagine such a situation, that such a great tragedy could be the realm of crime.”
AP journalists Renata Brito in Siret, Romania; Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland; Justin Spike and Bela Szandelszky in Zahony, Hungary; and Florent Bajrami in Medyka, Poland, contributed to this report.
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